The UNESCO-recognized World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, is the undeniable hub of tourism in the tiny, landlocked nation of Laos. A city of bougainvilleas, baguettes and outstanding natural beauty, this charming Laotian town rests at the convergence of the Nam Khang river and the mighty Mekong–giving Luang Prabang a stunning setting amongst lazy waterways and verdant peaks. Like a smaller version of Chiang Mai, but with a decidedly French flair, it is a place where backpackers come to recharge for a few days, and end up spending weeks.
While Laos may seem off the beaten tourist path when compared to nearby Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, a visit to Luang Prabang reveals that this little gem has actually been on the backpacker’s trail for quite a while. Luang Prabang is chock-a-block full of boutique hotels, western restaurants, souvenir shops and handicraft stores. Even its night market caters to travelers from abroad with its rows of stalls selling scarves, paintings and kitschy souvenirs.
But Luang Prabang–touristy as it may be–showcases some of Southeast Asia’s best examples of urban architecture and natural beauty. With its ornate temples, its colonial buildings, its idyllic riverine setting and its laid-back vibe, there’s a lot to love about this charming, picturesque town.
I flew to Luang Prabang via Bangkok, after ten days of exploring the highlights of Myanmar with my friend, Val. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO-protected gem that lays claim to gold-gilded temples, orange-clad monks, crumbling Indochinese villas and tantalizing French-inspired cuisine. The city is exceptional for its rich heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional architecture with that of the French colonial era.
I spent two days in Luang Prabang, enjoying the city’s architecture, its cuisine and its nearby natural attractions. On my first day in the city, I woke up at dawn to witness Luang Prabang’s famous almsgiving tradition. The morning alms procession is a daily ritual that takes place before sunrise across much of Southeast Asia. The practice consists of young monks walking through lamp-lit streets, collecting offerings of sticky rice from village residents.
From my vantage point across the street, I watched rows and rows of saffron-clad monks accept food offerings from locals and tourists alike. The spectacle was both beautiful and frustrating. Beautiful for its cultural symbolism; frustrating for the throngs of early-rising spectators that crowded around the monks–clicking cameras in their faces and obstructing the views of those of us who wished to witness from a respectful distance.
After watching the almsgiving procession, I returned to my hostel for a quick nap. Then, for the remainder of the day, I simply wandered down Luang Prabang’s attractive streets, crossed its bamboo stilt bridge, ate inordinate amounts of street food and admired the city’s architectural marvels.
Luang Prabang is home to a remarkable number of Buddhist temples with intricately carved facades. Among them, Wat Xiengthong, Wat Mai and Wat Xieng Muan.
At the heart of Luang Prabang, sits Mount Phousi–the city’s most prominent landmark. A 329 step trail climbs 100 meters to the Phu Si Temple. The Phu Si Temple pales in comparison with the larger wats that speckle Luang Prabang, but its surrounding views make the uphill trek worthwhile. It is a wonderful–albeit crowded–spot to watch the infamous Laotian sunsets.
I spent the second of my two days in Luang Prabang at the nearby Kuang-Si waterfall–a spectacular multi-level cascade that tumbles over limestone formations into a series of cool, swimmable pools. With its chalky turquoise color and lush setting, I found Kuang Si comparable in beauty to some of the world’s greatest waterfalls, including Iguazu, Victoria and Gulfoss.
The Kuang Si waterfall lies 30km from Luang Prabang and can be easily reached by tuk tuk, motorbike or organized tour. Since most tours leave at either 11am or 1pm, those eager to escape the largest crowds should either hire a tuk tuk or set out by motorbike no later than 9am. I found a handful of people with whom I could share a tuk tuk and reached the park at 9:30 am.
Entrance to the Kuang Si Waterfall park costs 20,000 kip and includes a visit to the adjacent bear rescue center. Home to endangered Asiatic moon bears, the rehabilitation center rescues wild animals from poachers who sell them for their bile.
I spent much of the afternoon at Kuang Si–hiking along the trails to the top of the waterfall, wading in the natural swimming holes and photographing the silky sheets of water as they cascaded into aquamarine pools.
Had our tuk tuk driver not been waiting to take us back to Luang Prabang at noon, I would have likely enjoyed the waterfall for the remainder of the day.
I’d always considered Laos to be Southeast Asia’s afterthought. But I realized, after my visit to the country, that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Travelers have long since discovered the tiny nation’s charm and appeal. And rightly so. For, as far as I could see during my short week in the country, the land of butterflies and baguettes offers a little bit of something for everyone–tantalizing cuisine for food aficionados, untouched nature for adventure-seekers, gold-gilded wats for lovers of history and a laid-back vibe for those who just want to sit back, relax and soak in the natural beauty of this long-standing backpacker’s utopia.